The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


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(ca. 1787–March 15, 1842 )

–Meskwaki (Fox) leader—was born at Prairie du Chien. He was born a Sauk (Sac), yet became a leader (peace chief) among the Meskwaki.

    The Meskwaki–Red Earth People–are closely related culturally and linguistically with the Sauk and Kickapoo. An alliance between the Meskwaki and Sauk was forged during the Fox Wars (1701-1742). The Meskwaki had their first direct contact with Europeans–the French–in 1666. The French called them "Renards" (Fox). At that time, the tribe's homeland was centered on the Fox River in present-day Wisconsin. The Meskwaki were willing to engage in trade, but they were unwilling to conform to French terms. During the prolonged Fox Wars that followed, formal French policy was to exterminate the tribe. The intended genocide did not succeed, although the warfare was severe enough to reduce the tribe's numbers and to push the Meskwaki south in Wisconsin and into Illinois, Iowa, and Missouri.

    The Sauk emerged from the conflict less devastated than the Meskwaki, and the two tribes moved south together. Although the tribes remained distinct, U.S. treaties assumed a "Sac and Fox Confederacy" that gave primacy to the more numerous Sauks than to the Meskwaki.

    Wapello (He Who Is Painted White) led a village or band of Meskwaki that was perhaps the most prone to accommodate U.S. demands. His leadership began as American settlement was reaching the edge of the prairies. The first formal "Sac and Fox" cession of land was made in 1804. That treaty allowed for the settlement of the Illinois side of the Mississippi River. Settlers did not dominate the area until the late 1820s. The cession, however, was contested by Black Hawk (a Sauk war leader) and his followers. Most Meskwaki already resided in Iowa or had recently relocated there. In the 1820s Wapello and his village were already considering the southeastern Iowa, Skunk, and Des Moines river valleys their home region.

    The Meskwaki did not participate in the Black Hawk War (1832). Nevertheless, they, along with neutral Sauk, were forced to cede eastern Iowa land in 1832, including the Meskwaki's "Dubuque's Mines."The treaty also made Keokuk (a Sauk rival of Black Hawk) head chief of the "Sac and Fox Tribe."

    Wapello was a Meskwaki "money chief," that is, one of the federally recognized leaders to whom treaty annuities were paid. Controlling annuities enhanced Wapello's power, but it also fed opposition to him among the Meskwaki, many of whom saw him as too compliant with both U.S. officials and the Sauk. More generally, an image of him as corrupt was reinforced by his reputation for drunkenness. Wapello agreed to treaties at Fort Armstrong (1822, 1832), Prairie du Chien (1825, 1830), and Dubuque (1836). He accompanied Keokuk on a trip to Washington, D.C., and other eastern cities in 1837. While in Washington, Wapello participated in negotiating another cession of Meskwaki and Sauk lands.

    In the wake of the 1837 treaty, Wapello and his village moved to the new Sac and Fox Agency built at present-day Agency, Iowa. The agency was fully established in 1838-1839 under the direction of Agent Joseph M. Street. Responsive to Agent Street, who promoted "Christian civilization" for the Sauk and Meskwaki, Wapello allowed a Methodist circuit rider in 1838 to conduct a Christian worship service in his lodge. Wapello did not, however, adopt the Christian faith. Tribal factions and disputes over the distribution of the treaty annuities by the money chiefs (Wapello and Poweshiek for the Meskwaki and Keokuk and Appanoose for the Sauk) led to bitter conflicts that entangled Street and other officials in 1840-1841.

    In 1841 village life near Agency was stable enough that Wapello was prepared to resist pressures to relocate yet one more time. In a meeting that year, he spoke at length in opposition to further removal of the Meskwaki: "This is all the country we have left, and we are so few now we cannot conquer other countries. You now see me and all my nation. Have pity on us. We are but few and are fast melting away. If other Indians had been treated as we have been, there would have been none left. This land is all we have. It is our only fortune. When it is gone, we shall have nothing left. The Great Spirit has been unkind to us in not giving us the knowledge of white men, for we would then be on an equal footing, but we hope He will take pity on us."

    The following year, 1842, Wapello died. He was buried at Agency, near Agent Street, with whom he had developed a friendship. By the end of the year, the final cession of Iowa lands that Wapello had resisted in 1841 was formalized.
Sources Information on Wapello is sparse. The best single source on him is Michael D. Green, "'We Dance in Opposite Directions': Mesquakie (Fox) Separatism from the Sac and Fox Tribe," Ethnohistory 30 (1983), 129– 40. The most readily accessible speech by Wapello (quoted above) is in [James W. Grimes], "Sac and Fox Indian Council of 1841," Annals of Iowa 12 (1920), 321–31. The most complete tribal history is William T. Hagan, The Sac and Fox Indians (1958). For a concise overview and synthesis of Meskwaki ethnology, see Charles Callender, "Fox," in Handbook of North American Indians, vol. 15, Northeast, ed. Bruce G. Trigger (1978). A concise history of the tribe and a bibliography are available in Sac & Fox Tribe of the Mississippi in Iowa, Visitor Information Guide (2004). (A tribal history is also available through the Meskwaki Bingo Casino Hotel Web site: A portrait of Wapello is in Thomas L. M'Kenney and James Hall, History of the Indian Tribes of North America with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs (1836–1844). Wapello's grave at Agency, Iowa, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Contributor: Douglas Firth Anderson